Since getting involved in the book business a few years ago, I’ve given a lot of thought to the clever German inventor Johanne Gutenberg, who helped make our modern book business possible.
Can you imagine what it would be like if each copy of your favorite books had to be printed by hand by monks using fancy quill pens to carefully draw each and every letter of the text on thick sheets of parchment? A Books-A-Million in those days would probably be called Books-A-Couple, if that much. And Amazon wouldn’t exist in any form.
Before Gutenberg’s time, the making of books took so much time that the average book could cost half a year’s wages and was therefore way out of reach for most people. Not even Amazon could have sold many books in those days. On the other hand, from the author’s perspective, you could get on the bestseller list with sales of one or two books.
It used to be said that Gutenberg invented moveable type and the printing press but the Chinese were actually first with both. Block printing had been known in China for centuries before Gutenberg came along. In fact, a printed book dating from the eighth-century with the receipt still in it was found in China. Some historians said Gutenberg invented moveable type but, once again, the Chinese were first. So, if Johann wasn’t first with the printing press and moveable type what DID he do? The answer is he made a lot of improvements in the things used in printing, like metals and ink. For example, he developed a metal alloy for making type and he found a way to make molds for casting blocks of type precisely and accurately. I’m not sure what all that means but I accept that it was all pretty important. Gutenberg also developed an oil-based printing ink that was better than any ink before it. In short, he made the entire printing process a lot better off than it was before he arrived on the scene.
Once he had done all those things he retrofitted an old wine press, making it suitable for printing books. Johann was able to print books faster and cheaper than anyone else at the time. And for that, book people the world over, have been grateful to him.
Like so many others in the book business who came after him, Gutenberg never managed to make a lot of money. I sometimes think that I am following in that fine tradition that he established.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org or 899-1868.